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‘A museum is only as great as its exhibits’; a behind the scenes look at local exhibition development

Richard Rodriguez prepping a display case
Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
Richard Rodriguez prepping a display case

It’s installation day at the Pensacola Museum of History and all hands are on deck working to showcase its newest exhibition. The exhibit, “Innovations of Yesteryear: An Object Tour of the World's Fair,” took nearly nine months to develop. For museum-goers, it can be easy to forget how much research and planning goes into bringing an exhibit to life.

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“It’s a very long process, it takes a long time to pull an exhibit together, particularly exhibits that have a lot of objects in them,” said Jessie Cragg, curator of exhibits at the UWF Historic Trust. “The way that we start developing exhibits is we go through and I start researching themes and ideas. Once I narrow down what I want the exhibit to be about, I start pulling objects.”

The museum’s newest exhibit will feature over 50 objects, from a vintage sewing machine to a 6-foot-tall statue of Elsie the Cow. Each object has a story of its own, which requires a great deal of research to uncover.

“Once you get the research done, it's taking that information and transforming it into a way that people can understand and easily digest it,” Cragg said. “I tend to do research papers first, then take that information and distill it into a paragraph of 100 words.”

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While research is being conducted by the museum curator, the exhibit designer begins to develop the physical look of the space. The process starts with modeling the installation on computer design programs like Sketchup. Among other tasks, the exhibit designer also assists in planning, producing, and installing exhibits.

“We started building these acrylic cases in-house, and the final step in finishing them is flame polishing the edges,” said Richard Rodriguez, exhibit designer at the UWF Historic Trust. “It’s like remelting the machined edge to get a nice, clear corner.”

“I think there’s a lot of jobs out there where you have a plan for something, but you contract others to implement it,” Rodriguez added. “Here, we’re doing it all ourselves.”

Doing it all themselves is part of the game. The UWF Historic Trust has an active exhibit team of just three people.

While Rodriquez is prepping display cases, Cragg is putting the final touches on framing a souvenir book from the 1893 World’s Fair. When framing objects from the collection, tools from your everyday craft room, such as X-Acto knives, hot glue, and tape, are greatly used, as long as they don’t touch the item directly.

“I used to think before I was involved in this part of museums that it was a precise science, but it’s very much not,” Cragg said. “There are parts of it that are, like building platforms and cases, but it’s the little stuff that you gotta get creative with most of the time, which is fun.”

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When fitted to frames, flat objects, like books, have a tendency to slide over time. What may look like a perfect display in the front is often a jumbled mess in the back.

“I was also very surprised to learn that more often than not things like gloves are not usually used,” Cragg added. “It depends on what you’re handling, but for paper objects, you’re much more likely to rip paper if you’re wearing gloves because you can’t feel the paper.”

As Cragg frames the final piece for installation, collections manager Lori McDuffie runs off-site to grab two large objects to be displayed in the exhibit. What she and a few others bring back are a vintage television set and an unusual looking hair perm machine. The team then unloads the items from the back of a truck and rolls them into the basement of the museum.

“When we’re working on exhibits, all of the stuff comes out of our collections area, and [McDuffie] will work to create it and make sure it’s clean and in one piece,” Cragg said. “Then, we’ll stage it and get it ready to go up into the actual exhibit. Right now, we’re staging everything down here, so these are all of our objects that are about to go upstairs.”

With the help of student workers and interns, the team works tirelessly over the course of several days to install objects and displays. They work from the walls outward, meaning anything that goes on the walls, such as panels or framed items, gets put up first.

Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
Jessie Cragg framing a souvenir book from the 1893 World's Fair

“The goal is to not have to reach over anything,” Cragg said. “Once it gets set in there, it needs to be set and done. You don’t want to be working over the top of something.”

Although displaying objects and their histories are important, the most critical part of any exhibit is to make it engaging. In her research, Cragg looks for unique stories that will grab the attention of and resonate with museum-goers.

“There are a million stories about Pensacola, the Gulf Coast region, and Northwest Florida, but it's about finding those few stories that people really want to learn about,” Cragg said. “A museum is only as great as its exhibits. I think the most important thing for us is to make sure we engage visitors in a way that they want to learn.”

Innovations of Yesteryear: An Object Tour of the World's Fair” will be on display at the Pensacola Museum of History until June 2024.

Hunter joined WUWF in 2021 as a student reporter.